After two days of dramatic consultations and public statements, an Israeli effort could be seen to calm things down on the Gaza border on Tuesday.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked ministers to refrain from giving any more interviews about the electricity-supply crisis in the Gaza Strip. He also changed his plans at the last minute. He was originally supposed to have toured the area around the Gaza Strip and to have been photographed against the backdrop of the bulldozers that have begun building a tunnel obstacle. But the meeting with senior Israel Defense Forces officers was moved to the Southern Command headquarters and the media was not even invited to cover it.
At the end of a ceremony at Be’er Ya’akov, Netanyahu made do with a statement that the electricity issue was a matter of internal debate between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas that Israel does not intend to get involved in. “In any case, I want to make clear that Israel has no interest in escalation and that any other interpretation is wrong,” he added.
Israel has known for several months now about PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ intention to hurt Hamas by stopping payments for the electricity Israel provides to the Gaza Strip. As far as is known at this time, though, it was not a joint Israeli-Palestinian move, but rather a decision at the political level in Jerusalem (to which the army and Shin Bet security service agreed) not to interfere with the PA’s move.
Israel deducts the money the PA pays it for electricity to the Gaza Strip from taxes it levies for the Palestinians and is meant to pass on to the PA. A similar deduction was made in the past for the electricity supply to the West Bank. In principle, Israel does not have to carry out the PA’s action. It can continue charging the money, or it can decide that to avoid worsening the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip – where electricity is currently supplied only four hours out of every 24 – it would be better to reduce electricity in the West Bank by an hour to 23 hours a day.
But none of these steps have been taken and, according to the cabinet’s decision, the reduction in payments to the PA will do even more damage to electricity supply to the Gaza Strip. The security establishment rejects the claim that Israel has thus agreed to serve as Abbas’ pawn in his dispute with Hamas. The impression, shared by Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the IDF brass, is that the situation is still under control and that Hamas also prefers at this point to avoid a military clash.
Israel banking on Egypt
Is this cautious optimism based on the reality? It seems some Israeli assessments are based on the hope that Egypt will intervene in the crisis. Over the past few days, Hamas officials – headed by the organization’s new leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sanwar – have been in Cairo, where they are holding talks with Egypt’s intelligence chiefs.
The London-based daily Asharq Al-Awsat reported Tuesday that Egypt is prepared to solve the Gaza Strip’s electricity problems if Hamas agrees to hand over 17 wanted men living in the Strip and to tighten its oversight of the border with Egypt at Rafah.
Sources in Israel confirm that talks with both Egypt and European countries are underway on the matter of electricity to Gaza.
Ties between the government in Cairo and Hamas have been stormy since the military takeover that brought Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi to power four years ago. The Egyptian priorities are known: For years, the Egyptians have been having trouble suppressing attacks in Sinai by local Islamic State jihadists. Dozens of members of the Egyptian security forces are killed in Sinai every month, despite major assistance provided to Cairo by Israel in intelligence and drone operations, according to reports in the Arab and international media.
Israel has accused Hamas several times of harboring Islamic State operatives in the Gaza Strip, treating injured ISIS members and cooperating with ISIS on weaponry.
Cutting off coordination between Hamas and ISIS is important to Egypt and could even lead to Egyptian assistance in providing electricity. Israel apparently also hopes that an achievement for the PA in its struggle against Hamas will encourage Abbas to impose the PA’s authority over the border crossings in the Gaza Strip, which he could not do after the 2014 war in Gaza, despite feelers sent out by Israel and the United States.
But these are still plans and goals on paper. Hamas has already shown in the past it does not feel obligated to act according to Israeli hopes, or predictions by Israeli intelligence.
Despite the relative confidence conveyed by Netanyahu and the Israeli army, and despite Tuesday's calming efforts, the possibility cannot be ruled out that things will get out of hand. When a population of 2 million receives so little electricity in the sweltering heat of summer, it's hard to guarantee the Gaza Strip remaining calm for long.